Friday, June 22, 2012

La Strada (1954)

La strada, Italy, 108 minutes
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Tulio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano
Photography: Otello Martelli, Carlo Carlini
Music: Nino Rota
Editor: Leo Cattozzo
Cast: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvani, Marcella Rovere, Livia Venturini

"La strada" is Italian for "the road" and that is probably as good a way in as any to this great Fellini picture. Three years before Jack Kerouac and a decade past Bob Hope and Bing Crosby—and well in front of The Road Warrior—this steps in with yet another variation on the look, feel, and traditions, now well worn, of the road story. Some of its most powerful moments are set in motion by the simple expedient of transition shots showing the principals on the move again across the postwar landscape of Italy in their ramshackle transport of motorcycle, sidecar, and covered wagon.

La Strada is frequently classified as neorealism—as much as anything for its exteriors and the desolate postwar mise en scene, not to mention that it's Italian when neorealism ruled Italian cinema—but it proceeds much more like a dream. It plunges straightway into its disorienting narrative, introducing two-bit circus strongman Zampano (played by Anthony Quinn), who is in the process of buying the child-like and otherworldly Gelsomina (played by Giulietta Masina) from her mother. He has also just informed them that another daughter he had purchased previously, Gelsomina's sister Rosa, is now dead; evidently he can't even say where she is buried. Within minutes Zampano and Gelsomina are on the road. Possible spoilers on the other side of the jump.

Gelsomina is charmingly eager to embark on the adventure, excited about becoming a pan-handling street performer, which seems glamorous to her—and, indeed, looks like a lot of fun. Plus she clearly adores the privilege of calling herself an artist. Her spirit is warm and immediate, the one touchstone it always seems safe to retreat to in the world of this movie. Paradoxically her good nature also makes it easier to deal with Zampano's abuse of her, which begins almost right away.

Along the way they encounter a high-spirited acrobat known as the Fool (played by Richard  Basehart), who teases both of them mercilessly, and not in nice ways. He is also possessed of one of the most annoying giggles ever recorded on film. They are three cards drawn from a tarot deck, and in many ways their fates are sealed from the moment they meet. It's another reason it's virtually impossible to assess La Strada in terms of neorealism, which favors the simple and the homely by design. By contrast this movie is often utterly fantastical—in the stunts they perform, in the carnival-like entertainments, in the people they meet and things they see, and in the sheer bigger-than-life exuberance leaking on all sides.

One of the most deliciously contradictory aspects of the whole thing, in fact, is how sad the story is yet so joyful in the telling. The saddest parts—and there is much of that, both subtle and overt—tend to happen at a distance, or even mostly off-stage (save one horrific scene essentially linchpin to the finish), while the surface basks in the sunshine of the strangely beautiful. There is thus some cognitive dissonance going on, as it is such a pleasure to watch even as it deals calculatedly with devastating cruelty and loss.

Being an American of a certain age, it's strange for me to see Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart in such a setting, but the real star of the show is Giulietta Masina anyway. I prefer Nights of Cabiria, which she owns even more, but I can see the case for La Strada—in any event, as I've mentioned elsewhere before, I tend to prefer '50s Fellini to '60s, which is practically unmoored from any connection to neorealism. It turns out the neorealist strictures had something of a grounding effect on the zany, self-indulgent impulses that grew like ivy in the shaggy later pictures.

Masina's performances are often compared to Charles Chaplin and that's easy enough to see. I see even a little more Harpo Marx in this one, but same difference—Fellini is using her to draw on one of the deepest sources of the cinema, the silent comic, an element that again pulls against the essential tragedy of this story, leaving us mixed up in a welter of the lighthearted and silly with the base selfishness of human motive, and eventually doom.

Another countervailing force: There's a musical theme by Nino Rota here that Fellini uses deftly and evocatively (it sounds much like one Rota wrote for Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather movies). It's stated first by the Fool, playing it on a toy violin, and then by Gelsomina on the trumpet, in an almost impossibly beautiful moment during a visit to a convent. Finally Zampano hears a woman singing it towards the end of the picture, and from her he finds out the ultimate fate of Gelsomina, a sad and mean finish whose story shatters him.

There are so many great pieces to this picture. Gelsomina is an innocent and very nearly incompetent, making her treatment even more unsettling. Of course she falls in love with Zampano; her satisfaction when Zampano introduces her as his wife is manifest, charming and heartbreaking. When she decides later that Zampano's miserable treatment of her is actually evidence that he loves her, one can't help wincing. Zampano is just no good and no good is going to come of staying with him. He may have feelings for her but he's a selfish lout, and a brute, who will not change. Gelsomina's mistake is to stay with him, and she realizes that eventually, though too late.

Maybe my head is still too full of A.I. after spending so much time with it recently, but I think I'm seeing a coarse and depraved Pinocchio story buried in the details of La Strada and the directions it takes. In this case, the puppet master Zampano has created not a simulacrum of a boy, but of a wife. He trains Gelsomina in performance skills, and in wife skills, by beating her regularly, and philandering. Gelsomina does everything she can to live up to that and to make it a reality. She becomes a better entertainer, and more subservient partner, though never close to great at either. In the end she pays dearly for her efforts—but in the end, in the scene at the beach, it's arguable that she triumphs, becoming the one real wife Zampano ever has, years after she has gone.

Programming note: This completes my write-up of the top 50 movies on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?—or, well, the top 50 extant when I first drew up my list. The Magnificent Ambersons and La Strada have since fallen out and been replaced by Contempt and The Wild Bunch. So it goes. I hope to get to those and many more on that list in the fullness of time, but for the next few months I'm going to try working from another list at TSPDT, their critics' soup consensus formula as applied to the 21st century. That will alternate weekly on Fridays with the continuing Movie of the Year survey.

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